Alexandra Andrews, WHO IS MAUD DIXON?

Alexandra Andrews, WHO IS MAUD DIXON?

Alexandra Andrews joins Zibby for an impromptu therapy session and conversation about her debut novel, Who is Maud Dixon? The two joke about how many drafts of the story Alexandra wrote before reaching publication, why she hates when other writers say they hate writing, and what it’s like being married to another author.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alexandra. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to talk about Who is Maud Dixon?

Alexandra Andrews: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so thrilled to be here.

Zibby: I’m thrilled to have you. For readers who might not have read this back in March when it came out — sorry for the delay here in recording and getting this episode out — could you tell them what Who is Maud Dixon? is about?

Alexandra: Of course. Who is Maud Dixon? is about an ambitious, young assistant in the editorial world who then gets a job as the assistant to a world-famous but pseudonymous writer like Elena Ferrante. First, this woman just becomes her mentor. Then our young narrator, Florence Darrow, decides maybe she should take a shortcut and steal her mentor’s lunch.

Zibby: It’s sort of similar now to The Plot, in a way. Have you read that book?

Alexandra: I know. Isn’t that funny that all these books are coming out about the publishing industry?

Zibby: Yeah, it’s true.

Alexandra: I found out after I wrote my book that publishers never want to publish books about the publishing industry. Luckily, I’d already written it.

Zibby: No, not true. My GMA article for June is coming out any minute. Literally, in the introduction, I was like, okay, half these books take place in the publishing industry. What’s going on? You started a trend here. It’s great.

Alexandra: That might have been a pork of the publishing schedule, but sure, I’ll take it.

Zibby: How did you come up with this idea? What made you write about this topic?

Alexandra: There was a little bit of me in Florence even though I’m not quite as crazy as she is.

Zibby: And now is when I hang up.

Alexandra: Yeah, exactly. I’m in the room right behind you. I started out in journalism. I was at ProPublica for a while. Then I moved to copywriting. I had never written fiction. I was pregnant with my first child. I was just thinking, this is ridiculous. I’ve been working in these jobs for fifteen years. I’ve always wanted to write a book. I’ve always found reasons not to do it. Just do it. I finally sat down and I started writing about this woman who really wanted to be a writer and also couldn’t really force herself to sit down and do the work. I was also rereading The Talented Mr. Ripley at the time. I thought it would be fun to do an update on the whole identity switch. I wanted to do it with women. Then it was also at the height of Elena Ferrante fever. I was so interested by this fascination with her real identity and the lengths to which this journalist went to track her down. I think it was just all those ideas swirling around that came together.

Zibby: Wow. I have to say, you drew me in, particularly with the whole scene in what must be like a West Village dive bar or something that was in my head with the older boss and the younger woman and the hand under the table and the hotel room and all of this. I was like, oh, this is pretty juicy, sitting up straight reading this.

Alexandra: I got married at The Bowery Hotel. I had one of my first dates with my husband at that bar. It wasn’t that juicy.

Zibby: You never know. I feel like that’s what you can do in fiction. What if? What if this had happened? I don’t know, maybe. I wish this had happened, maybe.

Alexandra: I know. I think that’s why I was intimidated by fiction to begin with because when anything happened, it’s, what should happen? It’s a little bit overwhelming having this blank page. Then it’s just the other side of the coin. That’s sort of fun. You can make anything happen. That’s a bit circular logic.

Zibby: What got you over the hump from procrastinating and not wanting to do — not procrastinating, really — maybe the fear, the intimidation of the project to — I know you were pregnant, but that’s another huge reason to not do it.

Alexandra: Actually, I started thinking about how my daughter would look at me. I really didn’t want her to look at me as somebody who was working in a job I didn’t really like, who wasn’t really proud of the work I was doing, and who was this should’ve, could’ve, would’ve. Oh, I wanted to be a writer. That was a big part of it. I also just felt like I’d reached my breaking point in these jobs. I was just feeling so desperate for a change. It was also around the time my husband and I decided to move to Paris. We were only going for two years. Although, it ended up being a year and a half. I decided to use this time as my do-or-die moment. It was like, write a book or go find a different career. Go do something completely different because this isn’t working how things are going now. I ultimately wrote the book there, which was pretty delightful.

Zibby: That’s awesome. That’s like out of a movie itself. Now there’s an extra layer. Now the writer who thought about writing a book is now writing the book. You’re in Paris. Oh, my gosh, very cool. When you went to write it and as you were developing Florence and all the characters and even Maud Dixon herself and the scuttlebutt around who her personality is and all the parties and all of this, how did you pull these things in from life? How did you structure it? Did it all just unfold as you sat down and you were looking out at the Seine and feeling all inspired?

Alexandra: That would’ve been nice if it had just unfolded. I will tell the truth. It was a slog. I went through twenty-four drafts. I still have them all on my computer.

Zibby: No!

Alexandra: Yep. I started out with such a clear plot. None of it survived. I threw out tons of pages. Our apartment even got robbed while we were there, while we were sleeping. My computer got stolen. I lost a few drafts. Then it changed direction from there too. There were definitely fits and starts. Ultimately, what happened was I loved these characters so much, I loved the relationship, especially Helen/Maud Dixon, that the plot changed to accommodate them. Their dialogue would take me to new places. Originally, Maud had played a smaller role, but I was just having so much fun writing her that I kept her in for longer and longer and longer. It really all came out of these two characters who are not based on anybody real. I worked with a lot of very ambitious, smart, motivated women earlier in my career, and I sort of took that, which I very much admire. Then when it came to Maud, I took it to extremes, and it curdled into something a little bit darker and closer to ruthlessness. She still has that unapologetic-ness, which I actually do admire in women because I’m someone who’s hemmed in a lot by trying to be polite, trying to be sweet, whatever, that whole baggage. It was fun to just get carried with the character.

Zibby: You did have some line like that when Helen first meets Florence and says something like, essentially, kill or be killed. You have to look out for yourself. I can’t remember. I probably dogeared it somewhere, which of course, I’ve lost by this point. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Alexandra: Now it’s come out that I didn’t really write the book.

Zibby: Oh, no. That’s so funny. Let’s break that news right here. No, I can’t find it, but that’s okay. Anyway, you said something like that.

Alexandra: I believe it.

Zibby: That would be so funny if now somebody wrote a book about all the people writing — never mind. Too meta here. Maybe not funny at all. Do you enjoy writing? Did you like it? Did you like the process? Are you writing another book? Were you like, that was awful, I’m never doing that again?

Alexandra: That’s so funny you ask that. I feel like whenever I would listen to author interviews in the past and they’d be like, “Writing is the worst job in the world. It’s such a slog. If I could do anything else…” I’d always think, shut up. I want to be a writer. You have the easiest job. It’s true. I get to sit in my apartment or wherever and make my own schedule. There is something very enjoyable about that, but I do find it very emotionally fraught. I beat myself up over procrastinating. I have so much self-doubt. It’s a complicated process for me. I am working on the second book, but I’ve already thrown out two plots which I had made some headway on. A part of it, I think, is the pandemic. Some people were spurred to a lot of creativity. That was not me. I found it very hard to concentrate and gather my thoughts. To a certain extent, reality was stranger than fiction. I was like, why am I making up — this is crazy. This is as crazy as it gets. Now I feel like I’m in a better place. I have a plot I’m going forward with, hopefully the final one. I am starting to enjoy it again. It’s a long slog. Then every once in a while, you get a rush and you think, oh, I like that sentence. Oh, there’s a possibility. You just live for those little flights of euphoria.

Zibby: That’s nice, a flight of euphoria. Maybe I just haven’t been writing the right sentences.

Alexandra: They’re rare. They’re very rare. Next time you read the same thing, you think, this is garbage.

Zibby: Next sentence you write that gives you a flight of euphoria, I’d like you to just copy it and send it to me in an email because I want to see what it looks like.

Alexandra: No, because you’ll be like, this?

Zibby: It can be the subject. You don’t even have to say hello. Just send me the sentence. I’m not even kidding. That’s funny. For that person who’s sitting there listening now and is like, okay, it does sound like a slog, even though, yes, you’re not — what book did I just read? I just finished reading a book where the author, at one point, had to literally lay cement on the side of the road and now is like, anybody who talks to me — oh, Richard Russo — and was like, if we talk about hard work, he’s like, this is not hard work. He thinks about how his back was hurting. So okay, fine, it’s not that. I’m not comparing it to that. What would you say? Somebody wants to get into it, what advice would you give? Would you say yes? Would you say no? What would you say?

Alexandra: I would say yes. I feel like if you have the urge, then you will get satisfaction from doing it. I will give two pieces of tangible advice. One, don’t reread anything you write. I think that was huge for me. I would always reread things and be like, ugh, this is terrible, and then just give up. With Maud Dixon, I just told myself I wasn’t going to go back. I would start every day and just start typing, typing, typing, close the document, and I wouldn’t go back. Then by the time I finally reread it to edit it, I had gotten far enough in where it was almost — there’s some economic term. It was just too much to throw away. I’d put in too much. Then the other big thing is, put an internet blocker on your computer. Makes such a difference.

Zibby: Wow, I don’t know. With kids, I feel like I always have to be in touch.

Alexandra: I know. You might get the time, but your brain doesn’t stop thinking about the kids.

Zibby: You never know. The school can always call. Something can happen. Internet blocking for me, I don’t know. For other people, I like that. I like it in theory. What kind of books do you like to read? Do you love to read?

Alexandra: I love to read.

Zibby: Did you always love to read?

Alexandra: Yes, I always did. I actually read a lot of literary fiction. I love going back to the classics. I have a terrible, terrible memory, which is actually sort of a boon because I get to reread my favorite books over and over again for the first time. Right now, I’m reading Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. I’d read The Magic Mountain, but I never read this. It’s just so delightful. You think of these classics as being very dry or boring, but it’s not. He’s a great storyteller. I love going back to the books that, they’ve survived the test of the ages. They really are just beautiful, beautiful stories.

Zibby: In terms of more contemporary stuff, is there anything good you’ve read lately? Is there something that kept you up at night lately? I hate to put you on the spot like this. I’m just always curious.

Alexandra: I’m looking at my pile. I love Rachel Cusk’s new book. What else have I read recently? I’m looking at my bedside table. I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m going to remember.

Zibby: How did you end up working with Jen Joel as your agent, by the way?

Alexandra: I lucked out. My husband is a novelist, Christopher Beha. He is very hooked into the literary world. He’s also the editor at Harper’s. He had mentioned to a few agents that I was writing this book. He just gave a brief outline of the plot. They were like, “Oh, that sounds interesting. She can send it my way.” I sent it to three agents that he hooked me up with. Jen wrote back and said she’d love to work together, which was just a dream come true. Chris was like, “Jen is such a big deal. She’s not going to take you on, but she might kick you down to someone else at the company.” I jumped at it like that. She’s been so wonderful.

Zibby: What is it like in a marriage where both of you are writing, especially given all of your — you’re seriously one of the most — I can feel your self-criticism oozing out of you, your self-doubt and self-criticism. I don’t know why. You’re obviously a really talented author and everything. Maybe it’s just par for the course and you’re more open about it.

Alexandra: Maybe this is going to turn into a therapy session. I’m going to have to send you a check afterwards.

Zibby: Go for it.

Alexandra: I do try to be honest and open about it because it was a struggle. I think a lot of people doubt themselves. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It doesn’t mean it’s valid. Just admit that you’re telling yourself lies, I guess. No, it’s a delight being married to another novelist. He is so supportive. He gives wonderful advice. I didn’t give him this book until I had a full, complete draft because I just didn’t want him reading anything rough. He, luckily, liked it and was very kind. He gave some constructive criticism. It also helps that we write different types of books. He’s very much a literary writer. His book just got nominated for the National Book Award. I’m a little bit more commercial. I really want to write something entertaining and fun and diverting. I mean, he does too. We sort of have different goals. It’s nice to be able to bounce your ideas off of somebody. He actually just gave me another idea for my second book, which is, keep the story exactly the same, but tell it from a different character’s point of view. It was like, oh, yes, I should do that.

Zibby: I’m going to have him come around. Actually, my husband is super creative. I feel like I do interviews sometimes — I should probably thank him more because everything I do, I’m like, “What do you think about this? What do you think about this? I need a title for this. What title?” It’s really him. I’m not doing anything, really.

Alexandra: I know. Even when I write my bio, I send it to him. I’m like, “Is this okay?” It’s so pathetic.

Zibby: I do the same thing. I’m like, “I’m trying to solve this problem.” He’s like, “Okay, I’m going to go to work now.” I’m like, “But I need you over here.” That’s neat, though, to have — I’m sure your daughter, then, is going to be just overflowing with — how do you even decide which books to read at night? You’ll be like, here, I’ll just read a page from mine. Awesome. Great. If you could just send me a check, it’ll be about a hundred and fifty bucks.

Alexandra: Of course. If you could send me a prescription.

Zibby: Next time, we’ll work on overcoming second-novel paralysis. We’ll see how it goes from there.

Alexandra: That would actually be great. I would pay a lot of money for that.

Zibby: See you here next time. Same time next week.

Alexandra: Our time is up.

Zibby: Our time is now up. Have a great day. Good luck with the writing.

Alexandra: Thanks. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

WHO IS MAUD DIXON? by Alexandra Andrews

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